Basque terrorism is the most visible example of regional nationalism in Spain, but another discordant battle is being waged here, too. This one is being fought over linguistic choices and the significance they hold. As I observe how the press in Spain reports on this struggle about whichlanguage teachers should use in the schools (Castellano, say those in Madrid; Catalan, argue those in Barcelona), outlandish headlines, stories based on one source, and political overtones are fogging over any attempt there might be to practice objective journalism. Depending on a particular newspaper’s political agenda, the conflict ranges from catastrophic to nonexistent.
In Europe, media outlets and political parties often work together, blurring the line between spreading propaganda and reporting from a distance. In fact, many European newspapers print their editorial sections on the first inside pages; this can make it difficult to tell where the op-eds end and more objective reporting begins. Spain is no different. Its major socialist party (PSOE) always has been the favorite of the El Pais newspaper. On the other hand, another daily newspaper, El Mundo, despises the socialists and backs the governing conservative party, Partido Popular (PP). ABC, Spain’s third national newspaper, favors strong right-wing views. So readers here can’t count on their newspapers to provide a clear picture of Spain’s language “polemica,” or controversy, as the Spaniards call it.
The problem is this: In both 1993 and 1998, Convergencia i Unio (CiU), the governing coalition of Catalonia (an autonomous region of Spain), proposed reforms in the public education system. All classes will be taught in the Catalan language (except Castellano classes) until the end of high school. CiU believed that Catalan culture needed protection from extinction. Madrid felt that the Catalans were trying to eradicate the national language and impose their nationalistic views on the regional population.
CiU’s leader, Jordi Pujol, has enjoyed almost 20 years in office on a strong nationalistic platform, all to the sneers of his counterparts in Madrid. Pujol’s rationale emerged as a reaction to the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, when speaking or teaching Catalan was illegal. In response to this ethnic oppression, the new Franco-free government in Catalonia chose to revive its native language in the classroom.
Other regions in Spain, such as the Basque country and Galicia, are reestablishing their regional tongues as well. Catalonia, however, is the only region in which teachers exclusively use the native language in classrooms. What creates controversy is that the population of Catalonia is only half Catalan; the rest of the population belongs to other ethnic groups. And every family who moves to Catalonia, whether from Madrid, Chicago or Botswana, is going to have to send their children to a Catalan-language school. Rumors circulate of teachers being threatened to teach only in Catalan and even of teaching Castellano in Catalan. The children, it is said, are not learning proper Castellano. Catalan supporters, however, believe that the omnipresent Castellano (used in the press, on television, in movies and music) is strangling Catalan, and that only through these measures will their language survive.
What happens on Page One? It depends on who is in power and which newspaper a Spaniard is reading. Add to the major three national dailies the numerous regional papers and the difficulties multiply, even more so when the CiU aligns with a national political party to form a working government. It becomes a maze of “who is friends with whom,” and these combinations change with each election.
In 1993, the CiU (the governing coalition of Catalonia) aligned with the socialists to form a working government. According to Miquel Strubell, a Barcelona university professor and formerly head of various linguistic ministries for the Catalonian government, the PP (the conservative party) wanted to drive a wedge between the CiU and PSOE (the socialists). The language issue suited this desire nicely. PP “began a ‘Let’s get hysterical about this issue’ campaign,” Strubell said.
For the next three years, newspapers such as ABC and El Mundo blasted the socialists and highlighted the language issue. In 1993, Strubell noted, ABC ran a full front-page photograph of King Juan Carlos I in full military garb, with a headline declaring that Catalonia was erasing Castellano. “From reading ABC, it seems as if it’s prohibited to speak in Castellano,” said Vicent Partal, an editor of Vilaweb, a 24-hour Catalan news Web site. “Its vision is deformed.”
In 1996, PP barely won the general elections and reluctantly aligned with CiU to form a working government. ABC nonetheless continued its assault. In a 1997 article on national politics, an ABC journalist wrote: “We are facing a change that intends to strengthen the Catalan language and culture and condemn Castellano as something illegitimate.” ABC even publishes intolerant letters to the editor. “The world knows very well the racism that we Castellano speakers suffer in Catalonia,” writes one Barcelona man.
But, Strubell said, after the conservatives won the 1996 elections, El Mundo abruptly stopped the Catalan-bashing. El Pais, now backing the losing socialists, picked up the slack, giving a lot of press to Foro Babel, a Barcelona-based intellectual group that believes the immersion system violates civil rights. Full-page spreads outlined the exploits of Foro Babel and its cofounder, Francesc de Carreras. He believes there are children who learn perfect Catalan through the immersion system, but that there are also some who don’t. Catalan should be protected, he said, but nationalism cannot be imposed by law. “Languages do not have rights, people do,” Carreras said.
Carreras also writes a regular editorial column in El Pais. Whether a newspaper should use news sources as columnists is a serious question raised by El Pais’s coverage. But that issue shrinks in comparison to the paper’s overall coverage during Pujol’s winning 1999 electoral campaign. In October 1999, El Pais reporters went after Pujol for never speaking in Castellano before the elections (a charge that is not true) and linked him to the state-sponsored terrorism scandal during PSOE’s governing years. “The message is clear,” the article said. “More money and power in the hands of the Catalans.” In an El Pais article from last April, a reporter interviewed one of the Catalonian government’s university ministers. Each of the questions concerned “polemica” (and received the usual vague political responses) until the minister gave the reporters the answer they were looking for: “All this is driven by the extreme right inside the PP, with whom you people are playing.” After getting this perfect quote, implicating the newspaper’s enemy, the reporter switched subjects and never returned to the topic. To use as the headline on the story, the editors chopped off the last part of the quote about the paper’s political motives. “El Pais doesn’t correspond to reality,” Vincent Partal said. “It’s pure fantasy.” Partal’s views are the same as the opinions of many Barcelona journalists, who say that Madrid’s politicians and newspapers inflate this issue.
“Of course there’s no problem,” said Frederic Porta, spokesman for El Periodico, a Barcelona daily that publishes both Catalan and Castellano editions. “The truth is here; the lies come from Madrid.” Porta has reason to believe this. One of Madrid’s newest newspapers, the conservative La Razon (The Truth), published headlines about this issue using words such as “discrimination” and “racism.” In one article, La Razon grouped this language situation with Basque terrorism and neo-Nazi violence, as though they are equivalents. On the other hand, local Catalonian newspapers such as Diari de Tarragona and Avui attack opponents of the immersion with the same ferocity, often repeating in their headlines the word “suppression.”
La Vanguardia, Barcelona’s major daily, has some of the best and most extensive coverage of the debate. The paper’s reporters convey what is said and done and usually leave opinions about this issue to the editorial pages. In a 1996 article, a reporter went to the schools, interviewed students, and learned what the law actually says. Although seemingly routine for an education story, this journalist is one of few to actually visit a school instead of simply parroting the party line.
Catalan should be taught in schools, said Josep Playa, another education reporter at La Vanguardia, but he acknowledged that the current system is ripe with trouble. But when he boils down the problem, it appears still far less severe than the newspaper coverage would indicate. “The press in Barcelona have accepted the immersion system in the schools,” Playa said. “The Madrid politics behind the newspapers exaggerate the conflict.”
Michael Elkin reported this story during a Fulbright Grant in Barcelona. Recently he worked for Bloomberg News in Madrid and currently is a freelance writer in Spain.